ROBBIE LOW'S INTERVIEW
THE YEAR OF OUR LORD nineteen hundred and ninety seven has been one of the most extraordinary and action packed in recent domestic political history. It has been, in consequence, correspondingly difficult to get any serious "quality time" with those most intimately involved with the business of the nation. From late '96 until May Day this year everyone was in election mode - that curious period in which the media allows its desire for confrontation and headlines to obscure the complexities of rational debate and the party consultants reduce manifestos of immense constitutional moment to sound bites of what the great British public have told them they want to hear. Conservatives were seized with a quiet terror that, though the opinion polls could not really be that bad, there was a huge fight on for every seat. Labour was driven by the haunting memory that, although things could not be as good as they looked, they had turned victory into defeat last time and dare not do so again.
In the event both parties were wrong - it was every bit as bad/good as predicted and the political landscape, in the morning, was unrecognisable.
This was not the end of the problems for the journalistic enquirer. Enthusiastic scribblers who had given their hearts to a New Britain under New Labour were disconcerted to discover that Mandelsonian control of party utterances during election time was now enshrined as a feature of government. Journalists credentials were to be measured by their loyalty to the press release. Outer darkness awaited the uncooperative. New Labour hit the ground, as they say, running.
Meanwhile old Tories simply hit the ground.
Amongst the dead and the missing the remnant limped off the field to regroup. Mr. Major immediately fell on his sword - two years too late to save the election, six months too early to enable the reflection and analysis required to make critical decisions in a considered way.
Six months into the new era a semblance of political debate is beginning to re-emerge. At a recent meeting one conservative Christian traditionalist was heard berating a Labour friend thus:-
"Where in your manifesto was the promise to put interest rates up five times in six months, tax pensions, tax further education, increase hospital waiting lists and get the Scots to vote for independence without telling them the cost?"
"Really" the government supported replied, "you're never satisfied. We have a Prime Minister who is a Christian, a defender of the monarchy, organises a wonderful service at Westminster Abbey and publicly interferes with the Crown Appointments over Liverpool's next bishop. What more do you want?
Each side is having to learn a completely new role. After 17 years, Conservatives are free to criticise, Labour are learning the painful business of accountability.
Westminster today is extraordinary. In Church terms it is as if the whole bench of bishops had been replaced by Forward in Faith supporters and George Carey was reduced to editing "New Directions" while his erstwhile colleagues were discovering, many for the first time, the delights of holding down a rural multiple benefice or a less favoured inner urban cure.
How grateful we should all be that the episcopal establishment of the Anglican Church has never been troubled by the deep trauma of democracy.
It was as the last fling of Indian summer was overhauled by autumn rains, making a mulch of fallen leaves, that I made my way across Parliament Square, past the brooding defiance of Churchill and into the deep recesses of opposition offices to meet a notable survivor, Peter Lilley - former Secretary of State for Social Security and now Shadow Chancellor.
Going back a good number of years now we were responsible for one another. I was a constituent of his and he a parishioner of mine. A very regular worshipper, quiet, unassuming, thoughtful, he was unfailing and usually unsung, in his support for the Christian view on many moral issues, not least the rights of the unborn child, in the Commons. Those who assumed his right of centre economics could only be allied to a steely heart were usually undone by an encounter with the man and totally thrown by any engagement with a practical politics that was compassionate conservatism before anyone else discovered it - never mind converted to it. Seated in his office I asked him....
WHERE DID YOU BEGIN?
"Hayes, Kent. Same place as William Pitt the Younger. My father was a personnel officer with the B.B.C. and my mother was a secretary at W.H. Smith. Mother was regular at church, father an "occasional". I've always gone, Sunday School onwards."
Encouraged by a Grandma who lived next door and an older sister, now senior lecturer in French at City University, Lilley has never looked for any other spiritual home than the Church of England.
"Hayes Primary and Dulwich College. I was on the science side. You could specialise young there so I did. The nation needed scientists and, out of a mixture of duty and self interest, I went for Physics as my main subject".
"Not anything special. I'm not sporty so I pushed myself hard at work and got to be a prefect".
"My Headmaster, Ron Groves, suggested I apply for Clare, Cambridge and I was offered a place in those calm baroque courts and beautiful gardens."
Lilley is right. Trinity has the stately glory of Great Court but the hidden treasure of Cambridge is Clare.
STILL GOING TO CHURCH?
"Yes. Chapel occasionally if I was up early enough but usually the Franciscan church of St. Bene't at 11.00 o'clock. The time of the service had a disproportionate influence on me!"
WHEN DID POLITICS COME IN?
"Right from early childhood. I remember asking my father what we were. He said "Nothing - but, if anything, liberal". That never felt right to me. I was always conservative. I resented being told at school that there was an automatic divide - heart equals left, head equals right etc., and that young people are naturally left wing and idealistic until they grow out of it after 25. I was conservative from very early with ideals that have endured long beyond 25."
(This all sounds very familiar. I can remember my college chaplain, now a professor at Oxford, returning from the Cambridge Divinity Faculty one day in the late 1970's having been told by the senior dons that he could not possibly be a conservative and a Christian!)
"I went to the Union (Cambridge Debating Society) regularly as an observer and watched them perform - Lamont, Clarke, Howard, Gummer, what became known as "the Cambridge Mafia". Lamont was probably the best speaker. I was sure I could do it but didn't know how - I had no background in public speaking and, of course, I was a scientist."
This is a familiar Oxbridge code. It is usually suggested that scientists go to lectures all morning, are in the labs all afternoon and write up their notes all evening. Meanwhile artists rise in time for lunch, spend their afternoon arranging the forthcoming evening of extensive socialising 'til the small hours setting aside half a day a week for the tedious requirement of producing an essay. I cannot tell a lie...........
During the final year Lilley switched to economics as he finally decided against academic science in favour of politics. He also perfected his one great sporting skill - punting fast and straight on the river Cam with the entirely practical purpose of impressing young ladies of his acquaintance.
DID YOU EVER FEEL A TENSION BETWEEN SCIENCE AND FAITH?
"No, my faith was gradually growing. Many people seemed to believe that science had discredited religion without really knowing much about either, yet a lot of my scientific contemporaries were Christian. Truth is never afraid of knowledge."
WHAT HAPPENED AFTER CAMBRIDGE?
"I went to work for Industrial Market Research an economic consultancy involved in aid programmes. This meant working with teams of engineers and technicians, usually twice my age, all round Africa and Asia helping people use and share resources, teaching technical expertise, giving economic advice, helping with future planning and so on."
Friends will tell you of Lilley's diplomatic abilities as two African countries called a cease-fire in their vicious little border war to consider the implications of his report for their respective economies.
"I stood for secretary of the Bow Group while working in Africa. My supporters told me no-one would take me seriously if I wasn't in England. In the event I lost to John Butcher (not the M.P. of that name). He, a person of great integrity, recounted the votes and discovered that the figures were wrong and I had polled higher, publicly announced it and stood down."
Butcher's honourable behaviour meant Lilley needed to be home urgently. "I got a job at the stockbrokers Greenwells working for Gordon Pepper - the only monetarist in the city and great fun to work with. I was given the oil brief a year before the oil crisis when the price quadrupled so was in place as an "oil expert" at a critical time. I left a year before it halved. Colleagues tease me about a career pattern of always being in the right place at the right time. I guess it's the old adage - it's not important to be right but it is important to be lucky."
During this period Lilley became chairman of the Bow Group - two years running. The group, originally founded to counter the Fabians was supposed by many to be the pink heartland of the intellectual Tory left. Lilley was its first declared right wing chairman and received the ultimate accolade when Ted Heath proclaimed him "a dangerous man."
"In 1974 I fought Tottenham...... and Tottenham fought back. I learned a lot, really enjoyed it and made good friends with the Orthodox Jewish, Orthodox Cypriot and West Indian leaders there. In 1979 I wasn't selected but Keith Joseph came in for me to work in the Research Department. Greenwells didn't agree but after a lunch with Mrs. Thatcher the firm agreed to share me - 3 ½ days each was their exact instruction! My bonus from the deal was I was given the partnership I wanted."
1979 was a key partnership year for other reasons. Lilley married his sweetheart, Gail, a graduate of the Royal College of Art and head of design at a fashion house. The wedding had to be postponed as Gail was suddenly and frighteningly ill with Peter a daily hospital visitor but, happily restored, the knot was tied at St. Lawrence Jewry by their parish Priest of St. Peter's Vauxhall.
HOW DID YOU MEET?
"Gail was a councillor in Haringey - I helped her with the financial planning and she recruited me for the European Referendum Campaign "Yes" vote. At the time the prospect of cheaper wine, better food and a pretty girl seemed unanswerable."
DID MARRIAGE IMPROVE YOUR CHANCES OF SELECTION?
(Much laughter) "Yes it did! It was harder for a bachelor to get selected than a woman. Constituency reps would say "No wife? - well I suppose you may as well come anyway!" But my real problem was that I was not good at first interviews. Fortunately St. Albans had the final round in front of a big audience and I was O.K."
Lilley represented the cathedral city of the protomartyr for fourteen years, moving to neighbouring Harpenden in 1997 when half of his constituency went into that seat and included the village of Lilley. He genuinely expected both seats to remain conservative and was shocked and saddened when St. Albans was swept away by Typhoon Tony in May.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST JOB IN THE COMMONS?
""P.P.S. to William Waldegrave. Then Nigel Lawson "stole" me for his work."
Drawn into the government in 1987, Lilley became Secretary of State for Trade and Industry in 1990 and was then promoted to Social Security in 1992. This was an unlikely post for a right winger but his command of economics, his personal thoroughness, fairness and genuine compassion surprised his opponents.
Quite remarkably he allowed a T.V. crew to monitor him and the department for 18 months. The series, only seen by him just before broadcasting, was, in the event, a remarkable tribute to Lilley. I can think of very few in any walk of life who would take such a risk with equanimity.
HOW DID YOU GET ON WITH MRS. THATCHER?
"I loved working for her. Some hated it. She challenged every aspect of your proposal - testing it to destruction. But she loved it if you argued back. She actually listened a lot and, if you carried your case, she would give way and modify her position."
WEREN'T YOU ONE OF THOSE PEOPLE ACCORDING TO MR. MAJOR, WHOSE PARENTS FORGOT TO GET MARRIED?
(A wry smile) "I've always been pro-Europe but a Europe of co-operating nations states not a federal 3rd superpower. I'm a Gaullist really."
There on his wall is a large picture of a wartime de Gaulle that always has pride of place in his office. Unlike Heath, Heseltine, Hurd, Howe, Clarke etc., Lilley is unwilling to sacrifice the conservative defence of the constitution, national self determination and government for a Pan-European future. He is very exercised about the apparent carelessness and historical illiteracy of the present government in its proposals - the rushed and superficially debated devolution proposals which he believes may provide our engine for disintegration of the U.K. - the neutering of the British Parliament which will follow single currency - the removal of political decision from elected parliament to European judiciary consequent upon any "Bill of Rights". The danger of any reform of the "Lords" which simply places control of both houses in the hands of any Prime Minister.
YOU TRIED FOR THE LEADERSHIP?
"Yes. I thought for a long time about having a crack when it came. I've thought all along William would end up as leader - it's just I hoped to have a go first!"
(Much laughter) Those who know Lilley will know that he actually recommended the young Hague to John Major and genuinely has a high regard and affection for him. The Shadow Chancellorship is ideal for Lilley's quiet remorseless cutely analytical mind. Gordon Brown faces a very experienced and shrewd economist.
HOW LONG DO YOU THINK THE PARTY WILL BE IN
"Hard to say. Previous Labour landslides have been overturned in a term/term and a half. The government is still on honeymoon - that will end quicker with the press than with the public though there is ruthless news management at the moment.
They will discover you need ability as well as P.R. and it's vital "to believe" in government - it's not a simple quest for power. If you have vision of what you want to achieve the civil service responds magnificently. If you don't know or are permanently electioneering, they have to exercise their own judgements"
THE CONSERVATIVES HAVEN'T HAD A HAPPY RELATIONSHIP WITH THE CHURCH?
"I tried to get a more constructive approach to "Faith in the City". Latterly the press tried to set George Carey and I up against each other so we met to discuss the issues and we agreed to only comment on what was really said by each other, not on press reports. For example, the church was informed directly about our pension proposals. If Christians are to understand one another they need to communicate directly with one another."
Lilley generously does not dwell, on the church's rejection of the governments private overtures in the early Thatcher years or the culture of contempt for conservatism in the upper echelons of the Church of England.
HOW DO YOU THINK THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND IS VIEWED NATIONALLY?
"Alas, it is not held in high regard and I am sad about this. The
Church is very important to me and, I believe, to the nation. I want to
see its gospel work done with vigour, clarity and effectiveness."
We check on watches for the next appointments. I am wearing a £5 Casio - (until my old watch in mended). Lilley is wearing the £11 Casio - (it has a calculator built in). It is a small thing but typical of his unostentatious manner. A quiet intelligence, gentle humour, an absolute integrity and a deep concern for the things of God, the church will find few better friends in the political life of the nation.
Robbie Low is Vicar of St. Peter's, Bushey Heath in the diocese of St. Alban's.
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